London Festival of Baroque Music
Monteverdi Vespro della Beata Vergine
The Choir of Westminster Abbey, St. James’ Baroque, James O’Donnell
Westminster Abbey. 19 May 2022
A highlight of the London Festival of Baroque Music (and its earlier incarnations) is the annual visit to Westminster Abbey to hear the famous Abbey choir in the spectacular setting. This year they gave us Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine. It was directed by James O’Donnell, the Organists and Director of Music at the Abbey, in what will probably be his last appearance in the Festival before his move to Yale University after 22 years at the Abbey.
The Monteverdi Vespers is one of those enigmatic pieces with a complicated back story, like the Bach B minor Mass. It is unlikely that it was ever heard in the form that we know it today. Indeed, it might never have been intended to be heard in that form. It combines music for a traditional Vespers and a Mass setting together with “a few sacred songs” and a largely instrumental Sonata that do not fit into either a Mass or Vespers ritual. The general assumption is that it was a chance to represent the wide scope of his compositional powers with, perhaps, a none-to-subtle CV for a more prestigious post.
He eventually did leave Mantua for St Mark’s Venice where he stayed for the rest of his life. With a similar liturgical and social function as Westminster Abbey holds today, the grandeur of the music from this collection of pieces would have found a welcome space in St Mark’s. In the Abbey, the choir and orchestra were positioned in the nave, in front of the screen. From my privileged seat close to the front, the sound was excellent, but I am not sure whether that would have been the case at the back of the church. The Abbey choir (12 men and 22 boys) are well used to singing in the enormous acoustic. They did the sensible thing and sang with commendable clarity, allowing their natural and unforced voices to project naturally into the space. The only slightly tricky moments came with some of the solo boys singing from within the choir, whose voices didn’t quite manage to project too well – not surprisingly, as they all looked very young.
In several of the pieces, James O’Donnell grouped boys together iin various combinations to produce a fuller sound. This was particularly effective in the Sonata sopra ‘Sancta Maria’ where the boys sing a repeated ‘Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis’ above the complex instrumental texture. This started with a single boy, increasing bit-by-bit over the eleven repetitions. The two principal treble soloists were James Tweedie and Freddie Ursell, in the Concerto Pulchra es, standing on a platform at the front of the orchestra, their impressively stable voices.
Seven of the 12 men had solo moments, but the main soloists were William Balkwill, in the Concerto Nigra sum (sung from the back of the Abbey), and Julian Stocker in Duo Seraphim and Audi caelum. In the latter, the echo voice was sung from the choir, behind the screen. The similar echo sections in the Sonata were performed by the echo cornetto standing behind one of the pillers, which probably sounded very effective from further back in the nave when they weren’t visible. The echo violin was played beautfully by Karin Björk using the simple device of playing quieter then principal violinist, Theresa Caudle. The St James’ Baroque has been associated with the Festival and its many predecessors from the very earliest days. They played with exquisite sensitivity. Peter Holder, the Abbey Sub-Organist was the continuo organist, playing a sensible sized organ, with James O’Donnell playing for the more delicate moments from a smaller continuo organ.
James O’Donnell directed with his customary control and delicacy. He will be missed in the Abbey as he moves into American academia.